Assessing Theo Walcott’s current impact in Arsenal’s title challenge

Assessing Theo Walcott's current impact in Arsenal's title challenge

Arsenal currently sits comfortably in the Premier League’s top four following a solid start to the season. Electric performances by Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil, continued excellence from Petr Cech and Laurent Koscielny, and even the impact and development of Shkodran Mustafi and Alex Iwobi have all kept the Gunners right in the mix with title hopefuls like Manchester City and Liverpool.

But there’s one other player for manager Arsene Wènger that’s stepped up his level of play, giving his calculating and probing offensive attack another wrinkle for English defenses.

Yes, Theo Walcott, who’s been at the Emirates for more than a decade, is having a career-season thus far. He’s long frustrated Gunner supporters with inconsistent play, unfortunate injuries, and confusion over his best position on the pitch. Now he’s a vital component to potentially hoisting up a few trophies at the end of the season.

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The 27-year-old is tied for third in the Premier League in goals scored (five) to go along with two assists. His player rating of 7.63 is right inside the league’s top 10, just behind teammates Sánchez and Koscielny, and he already has as many league goals as he did last season in 20 fewer matches.

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Walcott’s statistical performance suggests that he’s one of the most fearsome scorers in England right now. Along with his actual finishing, he places in the top five in shots per game at 3.6, putting his name next to other offensive stars like Diego Costa, Sergio Agüero, and Kevin De Bruyne. The shots he does take are extremely close, with more than half of his shots coming from inside the penalty box. That makes for better opportunities and more goals.

In Champions League, too, Walcott has been splendid at finishing. He has three goals in just two appearances and sports an unbelievable 8.72 rating—putting him third in the entire competition behind Lionel Messi and, again, teammate Sánchez. In European competition, Walcott is actually playing at a higher level than world-class talents like Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo at the moment.

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It’s clear that Walcott’s improvement is a big reason as to why Arsenal has started off so well both in England and in Europe. He’s always been known for his blistering pace, but his dribbling and finishing have continually let him down. While he still makes the occasional wrong dribble here and there and gets dispossessed, the Englishman’s also shown more of a desire to play defense. With such speed on the right side with him and Héctor Bellerín, Arsenal can fly up and down that wing.

Possibly the biggest change for Walcott has been Wènger finally finding his preferred starting XI. Walcott has been used at striker before with inconsistent results, but he now finds himself firmly on the right wing. Furthermore, he’s no longer combining with Olivier Giroud up top, who’s been replaced by Sánchez. Giroud has his strengths (size, hold-up ability) and his weaknesses (slower, less dynamic), and it seems like the speedier, craftier Sánchez works best as a striker for all involved.

Just watching the squad every match week is evidence of this. The attack is so much more fluid with Sánchez at the 9-spot, and Özil, Iwobi and Walcott supporting him. The passing is quick and precise, and there is a lot more speed on the pitch without Giroud. It can be stopped when crosses are inaccurate or nobody makes runs to the penalty box. But, for the most part, Arsenal has been unstoppable with this lineup.

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It’s not bizarre for someone to reach their peak at 27 years old and ten years or so into professional football. What’s strange is that it seemed as though Walcott had been regressing and would never be anything more than an athletic, frustrating player who could never put it all together.

Walcott’s best season came all the way back in 2012-13 when he scored 21 goals in all competitions. He’s only hit double-digit goals two other times, and neither of those was in the past four years. Unless he dramatically falls off or suffers a devastating injury, Walcott is primed to get close to 21 again.

So as Arsenal continues their quest for a Premier League title in what could be Wènger’s final year, don’t forget the impact Walcott’s having. You need transcendent stars like Sánchez and Özil to reach those heights, but players like Walcott making large improvements could mean the difference between a first- and a second-place finish.

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